Working with Bauer’s 1783 translation of Bar Hebraeus’ “History of the Dynasties”

Following my last post, I’ve started to look at the PDFs of Bauer’s 1783-5 German translation of Bar Hebraeus’ History of the Dynasties.

It must be said that the Fraktur print is not pleasant to deal with.  But it could be very much worse!  I’ve seen much worse.  Here’s the version from Google Books:

And here is the same page from the MDZ library:

I’ve tried running both through Abbyy Finereader 15 Pro.  Curiously the results are better, on the whole, from the higher resolution MDZ version.  I had expected that the bleed-through from the reverse might cause problems – and it may yet!  Even more oddly, the OCR on the “Plain Text” version of Google Books is better still.

But there is a problem with using Google Books in plain text mode.  There is no way to start part way through the book.  You will always be placed at the very start, and you can only navigate by clicking “Next page” or whatever it is.  This is not good news if you have 100 pages to click through before you get to where you want to be.

The opening portion of these world chronicles is always a version of the biblical narrative about the creation, followed by material from the Old Testament, combined with apocryphal material.  I may be alone here, but I have always found these parts of the narratives unreadable.  When I translated Agapius, I started with the time of Jesus, part way through.  I did the same with Eutychius. I only did the opening chapters at the end, after I had translated all the way from Jesus to the end of the book first.  I recall that it felt like wading through glue. I might have given up, except that I had already invested so much time in the project.

Starting in the time of Jesus immediately introduces us to familiar figures.  On page 88 of volume 1, the “Sixth Dynasty” starts, with Alexander the great.  It ends on page 98 with Cleopatra.  Each section starts with a familiar name, one of the Ptolemies in most cases.

On page 99, dynasty 7 begins, after an introduction, with Augustus.  The dynasty ends on p.139 with Justinian.  Each ruler gets a paragraph, often only a few sentences.

It’s all do-able, clearly.  I’m not sure that I want to get into working on this book seriously, with the St Nicholas project still in mid-air.  But it’s not hard work, which is something!


The “Historia Dynastiarum” or “History of the Dynasties” by Barhebraeus

The last of the five big Arabic Christian histories is the Historia Dynastiarum (Tarikh Mukhtasar Ad-Duwal) of Bar Hebraeus.  This is a revision, abbreviation, and expansion, of his Syriac world history, the Chronicum Syriacum.  There seems very little evidence in Google that the Historia Dynastiarum has received very much attention.

Here is a Google Translate version of the relevant parts of his entry in Graf’s Geschichte der christlichen arabischen Litteratur, vol. 2.  This is of course very old now.  First the man himself (p.272):

92. Gregorius Abu ‘l-Farag ibn al-`Ibri, almost universally referred to in the Western scholarly world with the Latinization of the nickname Barhebraeus, the most important writer of the Jacobites [=monophysites], is one of the most important of his diverse writings, which cover all areas of profane and theological knowledge extends to Syrian literary history. Only two works that certainly came from his pen were written in Arabic from the start. The days of his life fell during the difficult time of the Mongol invasions.

Barhebraeus was born in Melitene in 1225-6 as the son of a Christian doctor who had been converted from Judaism and was given the baptismal name Johannes. After his parents moved to Antioch, he took lessons in logic and medicine from a Nestorian in Tripoli, Syria. Consecrated bishop under the name Gregorius in 1246, he successively held three bishoprics, most recently Aleppo, and in 1264 became Maphrian of the East, i.e. the Deputy of the Patriarch in the East Syrian-Persian church area with changing residence. He died in Maraga on July 30, 1286, highly revered by Muslims and all Christian parties, and was buried in the Monastery of Matthew (Deir Matta) near Mosul.

Graf states that Barhebraeus only composed two works in Arabic.  The first is a work on the Soul.  The second is the History of the Dynasties.

The crowning achievement of Barhebraeus’s life’s work is his Arabic history entitled the “History of the Dynasties”, which he wrote at the request of Muslim friends and completed shortly before his death. It is a partly abridged, partly expanded adaptation of his secular history (chronography), which he had previously written in Syriac, and which was accompanied by a church history in the same language. The additions to the Arabic abstract include, above all, valuable information about scientific and literary figures, including older Arabic sources. He reports events based on the ruling personalities, which are arranged in groups of 10 “dynasties”, these are the (Old Testament) patriarchs (al-auliya’), the judges, the Israelite and Chaldean kings, the kings of the Magi (Medes ), the. the pagan Greeks (Alexander to Cleopatra), the Franks (in the sense of Westerners: Augustus to Justinian II), the Christian Greeks (Tiberius II to Heraclius), the Muslim Arabs (Muhammed to al-Musta’sim) – by far the most extensive and most detailed part of the entire work – and the kings of the Mongols from Hulägu until the death of Ilkhan Argun in 1285.

Editions: Edvardus Pocockius, Specirnen historiae Arabum etc., Oxonii 1650, excerpts, beginning with the history of the Arabs before Islam, in Latin. Translation and notae. Complete: Historia compendiosa Dynastiarum, authore Gregorio Abul-Pharajio Malatiensi medico . .. Arabice edita, et latine versa, Oxonii 1663. Antun Salhani, Ta’rih muhtasar ad-duwal, Beirut 1890. German translation: Georg Lorenz Bauer, Des Gregorius Abulfaradsch kurze Geschichte der Dynastien, oder Auszug der allgemeinen Weltgeschichte (= Gregorius Abulfaradsch’s short history of the dynasties, or excerpt from general world history), 2 vols., Leipzig 1783 and 1785. Cf. J. H. Hottingeri Promtuarium; Sive, Bibliotheca orientalis, Heidelbergae 1658, pp. 80-82.

Manuscripts: Paris ar. 296 (15th century); 297 (1554 AD); Additions in the margins and on the endpaper: historical, geographical and chronological notes on the city of Amid, Iraq, Palestine, Syria, and lists of the Jacobite Primates up to 1493 and the Nestorian Catholicoi. Par. ar. 298 (1598 AD); 299 (1693 AD); 6501 (1355 AD).  Leiden or. 759; 760.  Vatican Borg. syr. 59 (Karshuni, 1688 AD, written in Rome by Athanasius Safar, Bishop of Mardin). Copenhagen or. 8 (1663/4 AD; see John Erichsen, Udsigt over den gamle Manuscript-Samling i det store Kongelige Bibliothek [= Overview of the old Manuscript Collection in the great Royal Library], Copenhagen 1768, p. 5).   Petersb. Inst. or. 37 (1605/6 AD). Sbath 50 (Kars., 17th century), incomplete; Fihris 61.

The 1663 edition by Pococke is available online in many places.  Here are a few:

Bauer’s 1783-5 German translation – printed in Fraktur -, the Des Gregorius Abulfaradsch kurze Geschichte der Dynastien, is also online:

Because of the awkward Fraktur text, this looks rather intimidating to the English reader, unless you view the copy in Google Books.  There you can click on the “gearwheel” at top right, and select “plain text”.  This will give you the text, already OCR’d into a Roman font.  If you do this in Chrome, your browser will then automatically translate it into some sort of English.  Curiously, if you copy the German plain text into Google Translate, you get a much better English translation!

By this process, we get this for Bauer’s rather charming preface (slightly cleaned up by me):

I do not think that I need to make an apology by daring to present to the public a German translation of an Arab historian, of Gregorius Abulfaradsch’s Brief History of the Dynasties. At a time when everything with healthy hands is eager to give every product of the mind, no matter how poor, a German robe if it is stamped with the name of a Briton or a Frenchman; At a time when translation factories for Greek and Latin classics are being set up everywhere, I thought that the dear public, which always shows a fair amount of patience, should not make a sheepish face and reject me out of hand if I ever do produce an Arab, and ask for his favor and protection for him.

Or does the Arab have less right to do this than the Romans and Greeks? “But Pocock has already appended a Latin translation to the edition of Abulfaradsch?” But there are also Latin translations from old Latin and Greek authors that are just as pleasant to read and clear as the one from my hero, and yet one explains it those German translations are not superfluous; And here it is also the case that Pokock’s work is rare, expensive and certainly in few hands of historians and history lovers.

Or do only the Greeks and Romans deserve to appear in German garb for the sake of the important content? It is true that the Oriental historian does not write as gracefully as a Herodotus or not after. The history of a people whose religion arose after the Christian one and has well over half of the human race among its followers; of a people whose language surpasses most of the world in terms of wealth, culture and spread across vast lands; of a people who had never been subjugated, but who were seized by religious enthusiasm and, as a result, a desire for conquest, subjugated almost the entire world and founded an immense empire that even exceeded the Roman one in size; a people who have done so many harm to the Christian religion, with whom the Christians in Spain, Italy and France, the Greek emperors in their provinces, and later the Western Christians fought so many bloody wars during the Crusades; of a people that embraced the sciences and translated the Greek philosophers, historians and poets into their mother tongue, while Christian Europe was covered in stark darkness by monkery and pfaffery.  Shouldn’t the history of such a people deserve to be known, and shouldn’t the author be important, who can be used as a source in its study?

Anyone would be ashamed not to know anything about the ancient Persians and their kings, about the Greeks and Romans. But in the history of the equally famous empires of the Khalifs and the Mogols, which overthrew them and which are so close to us in time and other circumstances, one did not want to count oneself to be a disgrace? I have often been surprised that the name of the Khalifs and their empire was something completely unknown to many a self-studied and not ignorant man. And if the names of great scholars who are respected by the world can serve to justify my undertaking, I can also refer to the fact that Mr. D. Dache in Leipzig, and my former excellent teacher in oriental languages, Prof. Nagel, too Altorf, honored my project with your approval, and expressed his consideration for me, which I have always enjoyed to the fullest extent, and as a grateful student I boast here with true reverence, that he also supported me from the stock of his library.

This, I thought, should protect me from criticism for publishing a German translation of Abulfaradsch, which mainly provides the history of the Khalifs and Mogols. For those who do not already know him or are familiar with Pocock’s work, I note that he is a native of Malatia, a city on the west side of the Euphrates, where his father, Aharon, was a famous physician, and that he in the XIII. century lived. He himself was very experienced in the science of medicine, which is why he reveals many predilections for doctors in his book and weaves in some nice anecdotes about them. He has written several works, such as: a Syriac grammar and a Chronicon Syriacum, which Asseman published in his Bibliotheca Oriental. Tom. II. p. 308. Wherever one finds more from our author, and among other things the opinion expressed in the preface by Pokock that our Abulfaradsch is the same person as Abulfaradsch Abdallah Ibn Attajeb (a Nestorian monk) is refuted. By religion he was a Christian, and of the Jacobite sect. The accuracy of his reports results from their comparison with other proven historians, such as Abulfeda, Eutychius, Al Makin. He was partly a contemporary and eyewitness to the events under the Mogol government. He continued his story of the creation of the world, according to the custom of Eastern historians, up to the year of Christ 1283. I was surprised that he wasn’t often missing from the oldest story and, despite its brevity, that he included many a pleasant anecdote. His style is simple and completely unadorned, the tone of his narrative is uniform and dull, still more bearable than Eastern pomp. Compare the preface by Mr. Ritter Michaelis to his Arabic grammar.

I also ask that the reader keep in mind when reading the translation that I could not embellish the original. The respect he was held in because of his learning is demonstrated by the titles given to him in the title of the book: He was the greatest scholar, the king among scholars, the model and phoenix of his age, the pride of the wise. How important his reports are is demonstrated by the frequent use which the authors of the General World History, in the 19th and 20th parts, in the history of the Muslim empire, have made of him.**

In my translation I tried to express exactly the meaning of the original, and I flatter myself that, through comparison with other writers, I have mostly hit the mark. Wherever errors have crept in that did not escape my eyes, I have corrected them in the following notes, and I will diligently point these out to the reader. If I had immediately at hand the subsidies of several Arabic writers, as I received them later, I could certainly have given my translation greater perfection, which the second part will certainly contain. As for the explanatory and corrective notes, I was advised by a respected scholar that most of the sheets had already been printed, so they had to be appended at the end. The time I was granted was short, which is why I only briefly touched on the bare essentials. But because I feel that it is more convenient if the notes are always placed under the text, where they belong, I will give them this more appropriate placard for the second part if the audience receives this first attempt with indulgence and care. “Why I didn’t deliver the Abulfaradsch in its entirety right away?” Someone might also ask about the translation of an Arabic book!

– Written in Nuremberg, March 21, 1783.

I would have given the opening of Barhebraeus’ preface also, but there are some OCR errors there which would make this harder work!

Update (19 Dec 2023): In the comments, Diego points out that the mysterious reference to the “General World History” must refer to volumes 19 and 20 of “Allgemeine Weltgeschichte von der Schöpfung an bis auf gegenwärtige Zeit” (Leipzig 1765-1808, 29 vols.). This was a German translation/adaptation of W. Guthrie and ‎J. Gray’s “A General History of the World, from the Creation to the Present Time” (1764-7).  Thank you!


Bar Hebraeus, Chronicon Ecclesiasticum – English translation published

David Wilmshurst writes to tell me that a really important book has finally come out – the first English translation of Bar Hebraeus, Chronicon Ecclesiasticum, is now available from Gorgias Press as The Ecclesiastical Chronicle, ISBN 978-1-4632-0535-5.  It’s a mighty 590 pages long, but sadly it costs $140 although various discounts are readily available.

Bar Hebraeus Front Cover-wilmshurt-2016The work consists of a history of the Syriac world, given as a series of short biographies of people and their works, down to his own time, the 13th century, when the Mongol invasions means that the Syriac world ceased to exist as a literary culture.  What Bar Hebraeus tells us about many of those figures is all that we know, in many cases.  Consequently any work on Syriac of any sort will tend to quote or reference it.

Yet it has never existed in English.  In fact I see that on the About page for this blog, a translation of it is mentioned as something that I would like to see.  So well done David for doing it!

Anybody with any interest in Syriac studies will want a copy.  There is a 40 page introduction, and then the work itself in two sections, as Bar Hebraeus gave it – first all the west Syriac writers, including himself (!); and then the east Syriac writers of the Church of the East.

Well done, Dr. W.  It is a mighty service to have this important work accessible.  I hope that Gorgias make a nice amount on money on it.


Upcoming: translation (offline) of Bar Hebraeus’ “Chronicon Ecclesiasticum”

The 13th century Syriac writer Bar Hebraeus wrote before the Mongol invasions that devastated the Near East and reduced it to the backward condition in which it has languished ever since.  The same events also brought an end to the production of Syriac literature, and caused the loss of vast amounts of what already existed.

Among his works are two histories.  The second is the Chronicon Ecclesiasticum, an encyclopedia of Syriac people, both Syrian Orthodox and Church of the East, with details of their lives and works.  This was printed with a Latin translation, but has never been translated into English.  Until now.

David Wilmshurst writes to tell me that he has translated it, and has now received the proof copy from Gorgias Press, who are issuing it.  I would imagine that it is an essential purchase.  Here’s the blurb:

The Ecclesiastical Chronicle of the Jacobite polymath Bar Hebraeus (†1286), an important Syriac text written in the last quarter of the 13th century, has long been recognised as a key source for the history of the Syriac Orthodox Church and the Church of the East.  Bar Hebraeus describes the eventful history of the Jacobite and Nestorian Churches, as they were then called, from their earliest beginnings down to his own time, against the background of christological controversies, Roman‒Persian wars, the Arab Conquest, the Crusades and the 13th-century Mongol invasions.  Two continuators bring the story down to the end of the 15th century, shedding valuable light on a relatively obscure period in the history of both Churches.  The Ecclesiastical Chronicle was translated into Latin between 1872 and 1877, but has never before been fully translated into English.  Gorgias Press is proud to publish the first complete English translation of this influential text, by respected Syriac scholar David Wilmshurst.

This elegant translation of the Ecclesiastical Chronicle, six years in the making, captures the distinctive flavour of Bar Hebraeus’s style, and is complemented by a facing Syriac text.  Wilmshurst also provides a detailed introduction, setting the chronicle in its historical and literary context.  His translation is accompanied by five maps, showing the dioceses of the Jacobite and Nestorian Churches and the towns, villages and monasteries of Tur ‘Abdin and the Mosul Plain.  A helpful bibliography and index are also provided.

David Wilmshurst was educated at Worcester College, Oxford, where he took a D Phil degree in Oriental Studies (1998).  He has spent much of his life in Hong Kong, and is one of the few modern scholars of the Church of the East who can read Syriac, Arabic and Chinese.  He is the author of The Ecclesiastical Organisation of the Church of the East, 1318–1913 (Louvain, 2000), a study of the Christian topography of Iraq and Iran, and The Martyred Church (London, 2011), a general history of the Church of the East. Both books have been warmly praised by leading scholars.

I hope that the price is reasonable.


Translation of Bar Hebraeus “Chronicon Ecclesiasticum” to appear later this year

David Wilmshurst writes to tell me that he has reached agreement with Gorgias Press and that his translation of the Chronicon Ecclesiasticum of Bar Hebraeus will appear in print before the end of 2014.

This is excellent news.  All our knowledge of Syriac literature – who wrote what, and when – is based on this work.  It is a scandal that it has remained untranslated for so long.


From my diary

Via AWOL I learn that an edition and translation of Bar Hebraeus’ scholia on the Old Testament is now available in PDF form online from the University of Chicago.  The PDF is here (linked on that page under the red down-arrow next to the text “Terms of Use”.

In addition, an interesting volume, The Early Text of the New Testament, ed. Charles E. Hill and Michael J. Kruger, Oxford, has appeared and is discussed by Larry Hurtado here.  It has wider interest than merely biblical scholars:

There are cogent discussions of wider issues, including in particular Harry Gamble, “The Book Trade in the Roman Empire” (pp. 23-36), and Kruger (a former PhD student), “Early Christian Attitudes toward the Reproduction of Texts” (pp. 63-80).  …

Charles Hill (“‘In These Very Words’:  Methods and Standards of Literary Brorowing in the Second Century,” pp. 261-81) provides a valuable study showing that pagan and Christian authors followed a different set of conventions in citing texts than used by copyists of texts.  …

This volume (though expensive!) is now probably the most up to date analysis of earliest evidence about the state and transmission of NT writings in the second century CE.  Given the limitations of our evidence, scholars are required to make the best inferences they can.  This volume provides essential resources in doing so, and largely shows that we can with some confidence posit that the NT writings, essentially as we know them, were copied for both ecclesial and private reading.

Which is what we would tend to expect, surely, of any ancient literary text not belonging to the corpus of astrological handbooks or similarly fluid literature?

Michael Kruger adds a note here.

I’d very much like to read this volume: it seems likely to be relevant to classical and patristic scholars.  It’s about $175, tho, which is a bit above my budget!

UPDATE: A corrrespondent writes to point out that I have confused two books in the above.  I referred to The Text of the New Testament in Contemporary Research: Essays on the Status Quaestionis. Second Edition (eds M.W. Holmes & B.D. Ehrman; NTTSD 42; Leiden: E.J. Brill, 2012), which appeared at a ridiculous price ($314).  But the book that I was discussing was actually the Charles Hill volume!  Many thanks for the correction.  Friday night tiredness, I’m afraid, is responsible.

The Holmes volume, however, is also likely to be interesting, as may be seen from the list of chapters given by Peter Head here.  But at $341 is way out of reach.  However I suspect it will be quickly pirated in PDF form, unless students have become wealthy in the last few weeks!


A second connection between al-Qifti and Bar Hebraeus

We all know that Bar Hebraeus described the destruction of the library of Alexandria by the Moslems, and we have seen a very similar story at somewhat greater length given by the Moslem writer al-Qifti translated for us yesterday.

Quite by accident I have come across a mention of an example where Bar Hebraeus displays knowledge of al-Qifti’s book On Learned Men.  It’s in Shlomo Pines An Arabic version of the Testimonium Flavianum (1971), which I came across while scanning and throwing out old articles and sat down to read a few minutes ago.  I had, in truth, forgotten how mind-numbingly dull that paper was, interesting tho the subject is.  But then I reached the appendix on p.73, Galen on Christians, according to Agapius.  This reads as follows (bits in [] are me):

In a portion of a book bearing the title Galen On Jews and Christians [Oxford, 1949, p.15-6, 57f., 87-98], Professor Walzer treats of a text attributed to Galen by some Oriental, Moslem, and Christian authors, which refers very favourably to the Christian way of life. All these authors but one state that the text occurred in Galen’s summary of Plato’s Republic. The single exception is Bar Hebraeus, who both in a Syriac and in an Arabic work tells us that the text is extracted from Galen’s summary of the Phaedo. …

[Walzer:] “… it is almost certain that the substitution of the Phaedo for the Republic is due to Bar Hebraeus’ notorious carelessness in such matters and of no significance whatever. In addition, Bar Hebraeus is by no means an ‘independent witness’, since his discussion of Galen’s life is nothing but an abridged copy taken from the History of Learned Men by Ibn al-Qifti (published after 1227 C.E.), who, again, attributes the statement to Galen’s summary of the Republic. Bar Hebraeus can therefore be eliminated from future discussions of this statement.”

If we know that Bar Hebraeus was excerpting material from al-Qifti, then we may reasonably suppose that the passage about the library of Alexandria has a similar provenance, surely? 


Al-Qifti on the destruction of the library of Alexandria

Emily Cottrell has made a translation into English of the relevant passage from al-Qifti, based on Lippert’s edition, and kindly allowed it to appear here.  Here it is.  I am not absolutely sure that WordPress will allow some of the characters used — if it all  gets corrupt, I shall simplify it.

Ibn al-Qifṭī p. 354-357[1]

Yaḥyā al-Naḥwī[2] the Egyptian, the Alexandrian, disciple of Severus[3]. He was a bishop in the church of Alexandria in Egypt and he advocated the Jacobite way of the Christians[4], but later on he rejected what was believed by the Christians about the Trinity after having read philosophical books, and it became impossible for him [to believe] that the One had become Three and that the Three would be One. When it was discovered by the bishops of Egypt that he had rejected [his faith] they were furious, and they gathered to discuss his case and organized with him a dispute. They refuted him and his view was declared wrong. His incapacity pleased them and they sought to reconciled with him, displaying a friendly attitude and asking him to retract his view and to stop saying what he had wanted to prove and establish to them. But he did not, and they dismissed him from his position, after some public discourses.[5] He lived until the conquest of Egypt and Alexandria by ʿAmr ibn al-ʿĀṣ. And he came to visit ʿAmr, who knew his reputation in knowledge and his position [on the Trinity] and what had happened to him with the Christians. ʿAmr honoured him and gave him a position. He listened to his speech about the impossibility of the Trinity and he was pleased with it, and he also listened to his speech about the cessation of the world[6] and he was amazed by it; although he was using logical proofs. He listened to his philosophical expressions with sympathy although the Arabs did not know them [before] and he became fond of him. And ʿAmr  was sensible, a good listener and thinker; so he took Yaḥyā [into his company] and did not like to depart from him.

Then one day Yaḥyā said to ʿAmr, “You have control of everything in Alexandria, and have seized all sorts of things in it.” “Anything which is of use to you I will not object to, but anything which is not useful to you we have a priority over you,” said ʿAmr to him, (adding) “What do you want of them?” (Yaḥyā) said, “The books of wisdom which are in the royal stores; they have fallen under your responsibility, but you don’t have any use for them, while we do need them.” (ʿAmr) said to him: “Who gathered[7] these books, and what is (so) important about them?” and Yaḥyā answered him: “Ptolemy Philadelphus, one of the kings of Alexandria; in his reign, science and the people of science were in esteem, and he searched for the books of knowledge and ordered them to be collected, and he dedicated a special store-houses to them. They were assembled, and he entrusted the responsibility to a man named Zamira[8]; and he supported him in order that he could collect them, [after] searching for them and buying them and inciting sellers to bring them and he did so. And in a short time he had assembled 54,120 books.

When the king was informed of the [successful] collect and verified this number he told Zamīra: “Do you think that there is a book remaining in the world that we don’t have?” And Zamīra said: There are still in the world a great mass [of books], as in Sind, and in India and in Persia and in Jurjan [ancient Hyrcania] and in Armenia and Babylonia and Mosul and among the Byzantines[9]. And the king was pleased with this and he told him: “Continue in pursuing [your duty]; and so he did until the death of the king. And these books are until today kept and preserved as the responsibility of the governors working for the kings and their successors. And ‘Amr started to wish [to have] for himself what he was hearing from Yaḥyā and he was impressed with it, but he told him: “I cannot make any order without first asking the permission of the Prince of the believers[10] ‘Umar ibn al-Khaṭṭāb; and he wrote to ‘Umar, informing him of Yaḥyā’s speech as we have reported it and asking for his instructions about what to do. And he received a letter from ‘Umar telling him [what follows]: “As for the books you mention, if there is in it what complies with the Book of God, then it is already there and is not needed and if what is in these books contradict the Book of God there is no need for it. And you can then proceed in destroying them.” ‘Amr ibn al-‘Āṣ then ordered by law[11] that they should be dispersed in the public baths and to burn them in the bath’s heaters. And I was told that at that time several public baths used [the books] for heating, bringing some fame to new public baths which later on were forgotten afterwards and it is said that they had enough heating for six months. One who listens to what has happened can only be amazed !

Yaḥyā al-Naḥwī was a prolific writer and he wrote commentaries[12] on Aristotle, which we have mentioned earlier in the Aristotle entry at the beginning of our book. He also wrote a Refutation of Proclus[13] who had claimed the eternity[14], which is in sixteen volumes.[15] And a book on the fact that every body is finite and that its death[16] constitutes its end, in one volume. A book [called] Refutation of Aristotle, in six volumes; and a book of explanation[17] on book Lambda of Aristotle’s Metaphysics.[18] A book of Refutation against Nestorius; a book where he answers people who did not accept [faith][19], in two chapters; another book like this, in one chapter[20]. And his books of commentaries on Galen, which are mentioned in the chapter on Galen. Yaḥyā al-Naḥwī wrote [the following] in the fourth chapter of his explanation of the Physics of Aristotle, while commenting on time, where he brings an example where he says “as in our year, which is 343 of Diocletian the Copt.”[21]

The physician ‘Ubayd Allāh ibn Jibrīl ibn ‘Ubayd Allāh ibn Bakhtishū‘ said that the real name of Yaḥyā was Themistius.[22] And he says that he was good at grammar, at logic and in philosophy but did not attain the rank of these physicians, that is to say, the famous Alexandrians such as ANQYLAWS (for Antyllos?) and Stephanos and Gesius (JASYWS) and Marinus. And it is them who organized the books [i. e. Galen’s books]. Some people say NQLAWS (Nicolaus?) instead of ANQYLAWS. This is what he said. But if he meant Yaḥyā, indeed [Yaḥyā] commented on a good number of medical books, and because he was strong in philosophy he became considered a philosopher because he was one of the famous philosophers of his time. The reason he became strong in philosophy was that he was working on a boat which carried people. And because he loved knowledge, when people from the House of Knowledge and the schools[23] that were on the island of Alexandria were crossing with him, and were discussing the last lesson and the views exchanged, he would listen [to their conversation] and he started to love knowledge, and when his intention to study became stronger he thought by himself and said: “I have reached the age of forty-odd years and I have never started anything for myself, the only thing I know is seamanship, so how could I undertake anything in the field of sciences?” and as he was thinking, he saw an ant which had loaded [onto her back] the stone of a date and was carrying it, ascending her path with it, when it fell [from her back]. So she returned, took it up again, and continued in such a way until she had attained her goal and arrived where she was intending. When Yaḥyā al-Naḥwī saw that from her efforts she had reached her goal, he said, “if this weak animal can reach her goal by efforts and struggle, then of course, I would necessarily attain my goal by [putting in] some effort.” He went out and sold his boat and attended the House of Knowledge. And he started with grammar[24] and language[25] and logic, and he became excellent in these fields[26] because they were the first he learned and he adapted himself to them and he became famous in these and wrote a number of books on them, commentaries and others.

To discuss the translation, or if you want to reproduce it, please write to me at e.j.cottrell AT

[1] “Ibn al-Qifṭī,” or “al-Qifṭī,” although the latter applies rather to his father, who held from Qifṭ (ancient Gebtu) in Upper Egypt. As our author was a Muslim official who spent most of his life out of Egypt, and became the vizir in Aleppo of the Ayyubid ruler al-Malik al-‘Azīz, he cannot exactly be called “the one who held from Qifṭ” as in the Arabic usage of the kunya, or the nickname formed on the place of origin. Thus, although the use of al-Qifṭī or al-Nadīm instead of Ibn al-Qifṭī and Ibn al-Nadīm seem to be supported by some of the manuscripts carrying their names (and are adopted by an authority such as Ayman Fu’ād Sayyid in his latest edition of the Fihrist, under the title “The Fihrist of al-Nadīm” [London: al-Furqān, 2009]) I will refrain from doing so here and simply refer to the use of these two names (i. e.Ibn al-Qifṭī and Ibn al-Nadīm ) by Ibn Abī Uṣaybi’a in his Ṭabaqāt al-aṭibbā’ when quoting from their books.
[2] “al-Naḥwī” means “the Grammarian.”
[3] Severus is transliterated here as Shāwārī.
[4] “Madhhab al-naṣārā al-ya‘qūbiyya.”
[5] By Yaḥyā or by his opponents is not clear.
[6] The expression “inqiḍā’ al-dahr” literally means “end of time”. “Dahr” carries the meaning of fate and time, and for this reason probably it is used here rather than Arabic ‘ālam, “world” which may be restricted to a physical connotation. The discussion about the “eternity of the world” does not address eschatological questions, as a modern reader could wrongly understand it but rather the question  of time and eternity in relation to creation, whether creation came after a “big bang” or if time is eternal and cyclical. The Greek word translated as Lat.  “mundi” in the title of Proclus’ treatise De Aeternitate Mundi (which was refuted by John Philoponus) is “kosmos.” There was an ongoing discussion among Platonists on the cosmology of the Timaeus which was later on continued among Christians in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages.
[7] The word “jama‘a” may also mean “to edit, to publish” in this context
[8]  Probably Demetrius of Phalerum.
[9]  al-Rūm
[10] Amīr al-mu’minīn.
[12] Shurūḥ.
[13] “Radd” means refutation, or simply “answer.”
[14] “al-Dahr” – i. e. the eternity of the world.
[15]Ibn al-Nadīm, Fihrist, p. 179 ed. A. F. Sayyid, reads 18 books, which agree with what we know of the number of Proclus’ arguments.
[16]Ibn al-Qifṭī reads “mawtuhu” (his death) while both Ibn al-Nadīm and Bar Hebraeus read “quwwatuhu” (its ‘potentia’). John Philoponus was known to have written a commentary on the De Generatione and Corruptione (see Ibn al-Nadīm, s. v. Aristotle, transl. Dodge, p. 604).
[17] Tafsīr, i. e. commentary.
[18] I have emended the text which does not give any satisfactory meaning otherwise. Ibn al-Nadīm reads: “kitāb tafsīr mā bāl li-Arisṭāṭālīs al-‘āshir” [al-‘āshir, the tenth, may indicate here that Lambda was considered the tenth book, which remains a possibility if some books were missing, see A. Bertolacci, ‘On the Arabic translations of Aristotle’s Metaphysics,’ in Arabic sciences and Philosophy, 15.2, 2005, 241-275 (available here:]. Ibn al-Qifṭī has “kitāb tafsīr mā bāl li-Arisṭāṭālīs,” which I emend as follows: “kitāb tafsīr mā ba‘d L li-Arisṭāṭālīs”. Bar Hebraeus does not mention a bibliography.
[19] I correct Ibn al-Qifṭī’s text with the help of Ibn al-Nadīm. Ibn al-Qifṭī reads “lā ya‘rifūn” where Ibn al-Nadīm reads “lā ya‘tarifūn.”
[20] Or “epistle, treatise” (maqāla).
[21]See B. Dodge (translation), The Fihrist of al-Nadīm, New York 1970, p. 613, n. 174: this is year 627 AD.
[22]It seems that here a marginal note mentioned Themistius as the actual author of a commentary on Aristotle’s Metaphysics Lambda, while John Philoponus is not credited with one in Ibn al-Nadīm’s entry on Aristotle’s commentators.
[23] Bayt al-‘ilm wa al-madāris.
[24] Naḥw, probably here for ‘rhetoric’.
[25] Lugha, came to designate linguistics but may here be used for grammar.
[26] Umūr.


Bar Hebraeus on the destruction of the library of Alexandria

Dioscorus Boles has kindly translated the passage describing the destruction in Bar Hebraeus, Historia Compendiosa Dynastiarum. He made it directly from the Arabic of Pococke’s edition — the only edition — p.180-1, and made it as literal as possible.  Here it is.

And in this time Yahya (1) who is known to us by the name Grammaticus (2), which means al Nahawi (the Grammarian), became famous with the Muslims. He was Alexandrian and used to believe in the faith of the Jacobite (3) Nazarenes (4) , and confess the beliefs of Saweres (5) . He then recanted what the Nazarenes used to believe in the Trinity, and the bishops met up with him in Misr (6) and requested him to return back from what he was at, and he did not return back to their faith, and he lived until Amr ibn al-Ass (7) conquered the city of Alexandria. Amr entered Alexandria and got to know about Yahya’s position in sciences, and Amr was generous to him; and he heard his philosophical sayings which the Arabs were not familiar with, and he became fond of him. And Amr was sensible, a good listener and thinker; so Yahya accompanied Amr and did not depart from him. Then one day Yahya said to Amr, “You have control of everything in Alexandria, and seized all sorts of things in it. Anything which is of use to you I will not object to it, but anything which is not useful to you we deserve it more.” Amr said, “What things you are in need of?” He replied, “The books of wisdom that are in the royal stores.” Amr said to him, “I cannot issue orders about them until the Amir of the Believers, Omar ibn al-Khattab (8), gives his permission.” And Amr wrote to Omar and told him of what Yahya had said. Omar wrote to him saying, “About the books you have mentioned, if there is something in them that goes along with what is in the Book of Allah (9), the Book of Allah suffices; and if in them there is something that contradicts the Book of Allah, then there is no need for them.” And he ordered that they get destroyed; and so Amr ibn al-As started distributing them to the baths of Alexandria to be burned in their furnaces, and so the books heated the baths for a period of six month. Listen to what had happened, and marvel at it!

(1) Yahya is the Arabic form for Yohanna or Yo’annis, which is translated John in the English.  The writer says Yahya is known to us by the name Al-Nahawi. Nahawi in Arabic comes from Nahwu, which means grammar, and nahawi means Grammarian (Grammaticus).
(2) John the Grammarian is also known as John of Alexandria and John Philoponus. He is known to have lived in Alexandria in the sixth century (490 to 570 AD). This makes it impossible for him to meet with Amr ibn al-As, the occupier of Egypt in 640 AD. It is, however, clear that Bar Hebraeus does mean this same person as he talks about his differences with the Church of Alexandria in the doctrine of the Trinity, which John Grammarian is known to have held (see: My gut feeling is that Hebraeus is confusing two philosophers here.
(3) The non-Chalcedonians, after the split of 451 AD, were known from the six century as Jacobites, because of the influence of Yacoub al-Barad’i (Jacob Baradaeus), Bishop of Edessa (d. 578 AD), who under the guidance of Saweres al-Antaki (Severus of Antioch), the exiled Patriarch of Antioch (512-518 AD) [See for Jacob Bardaeus:; and for Severus of Antioch:].
(4) Nazarenes is the name given by Muslims to Christians, though to be derived from Nazareth.
(5) See Note iii.
(6) Misr is the name given by the Arabs to Memphis, which corresponds now to the area of and around Old Cairo.
(7) Amr ibn al-As is the Muslim leader who conquered Egypt in about 640 AD, and ruled it twice (in 639-646 AD and 658-664 AD).
(8) Omar ibn al-Khatab is the second successor of Muhammad (634-644 AD). During his rule Egypt was occupied by the Arabs.
(9) Kitab Allah, Book of Allah, is the Koran.

Thank you very much, Dioscorus for making this!  Would you confirm that you release this into the public domain?  I would like people to be able to circulate it around the web, you see.  (He first uploaded this for us all here, but I wanted to make it a main post).

A French scholar has been telling me about a similar passage in al-Qifti, who therefore seems to be the source used by Bar Hebraeus.  She is translating this from the Lippert edition.  I have the first half, and it really is very similar indeed.  When it is done, I will post it.

UPDATE: Discorus Boles has confirmed that this is public domain – thank you! 

A French scholar advises me that “Amr ibn al Ass” should be Ayn-Alif-Sad, usually transliterated `âs.  So I have revised this to one “s” accordingly.


The Monte Carlo approach to borrowing books

Everyone knows that libraries lend books.  Some people know that you can borrow books not in the local library via an inter-library loan.  A few people know that you can borrow books from the national library this way, or get photocopies of journal articles.

Sometimes it’s worth pushing the envelope a bit.  Today I’ve rolled the dice to see what I can get.  I’ve placed an order for volume 1 of Abbeloos 1872 edition of Bar Hebraeus Chronicon Ecclesiasticum.  Will it arrive, I wonder?

The book itself is the most recent publication of this 13th century Syriac text, which has an entry on all the important figures of the Syriac church up to that time.  It comes with a Latin translation.  No translation into any modern language exists, yet it is the foundation of all our knowledge of Syriac literature.  It’s pretty old, now, and hard to get hold of.  It’s a prime candidate for reprinting and for

There are a few copies around; it isn’t that rare a book, although copies never seem to come up for sale online.  Abbeloos died in 1906, so the book is out of copyright everywhere.  But the problem is whether any library will allow anyone to take a book of that age home; whether any library that holds it will lend it.  I don’t know; but let’s see!

Usually I ask for books which I can borrow.  I don’t believe that anyone will lend me this book for use at home.  But possibly some liberal university will loan it “for use in library only”.  This isn’t helpful, of course, unless I can take my scanner into the library and do the necessary there.  I’ve asked for permission; we’ll see if that is forthcoming.

Why stick to the well-beaten path, after all?  Let’s go for the burn!

PS: See the comments; it turns out that volume 1 is on Google Books, albeit inaccessible outside the USA.